With the Democratic front-runners a woman and a black man, it's not surprising that the phrase "identity politics" is popping up all over the place. In his post-Super Tuesday analysis for The New York Times, Adam Nagourney wrote, "Surveys of voters leaving the polls suggested a reprise of the identity politics that has so long characterized -- and at times bedeviled -- Democratic politics." Christopher Hitchens penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "The Perils of Identity Politics." And Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama warned, "We're not going to win on identity politics."
But just because our front-running candidates are a woman and a black man, it does not mean that this is the first election to hinge on candidates' identities. All those other election years, when only white guys were vying for the nomination, well, those were "identity politics" races, too. Why weren't they framed that way? Because most of the framers shared the identity of the candidates: white and male.
It's high time we acknowledge that every candidate has an identity: a race, a gender, a cultural background. It may not make or break every voter's decision, but a candidate's identity is always an electoral factor -- even when that identity is white and male. Clinton's female supporters and Obama's black supporters don't get enough credit. They are making tough decisions on how to reconcile their political beliefs with their gut reactions upon seeing someone who looks like them up on the dais. In fact, all Democratic voters are wrestling with this. Very few Americans have ever had the opportunity to vote for anyone other than a white man for national office. After so many years with "white male" as the default political identity, we're all suddenly forced to think about how much a candidate's race, gender, and background should matter.
Let's make this election about the issues, everyone says -- and rightfully so. Our presidential nominee should be chosen primarily on the issues. But most of us don't separate issues from identity as cleanly as we'd like to believe. When it comes down to it, everyone is an "identity politics" voter. The problem is that phrase, as commonly used by right-wingers and some on the left who are tone-deaf on issues of race and gender, has the effect of cutting down the political choices and involvement of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians.
After all, Clinton and Obama and their supporters aren't playing "identity politics" any more than John Kerry's supporters did in 2004, or George W. Bush's did in 2000. It's absurd to suggest that the Andover-Yale-Harvard-bred Bush adopting a swagger and thickening his Texas accent, or John Kerry riding a borrowed Harley onto The Tonight Show set, was anything other than identity politics. And after several early primaries, as it became clear that white men most strongly supported John Edwards, nobody accused them of playing identity politics. Nope, that distinction is reserved for people who have historically not been in positions of political power. In short, you can't be a white guy voting for another white guy and still play the identity game.
The news analysis after Clinton's New Hampshire victory (on the heels of her teary-eyed moment) and Obama's South Carolina victory (on the heels of Clinton surrogates throwing around racist phrases such as "shuck and jive") was that the anger of women and blacks reacting to sexist and racist incidents propelled the candidates to victory. That may or may not be true. But without a doubt, when it comes to identity, the negative is a more powerful motivator than the positive. When you attack candidates on the basis of their gender, race, or religion, you're not just attacking the candidates -- you're attacking everyone who shares their background. When people question Clinton's ability to lead because she's a woman, they're questioning my ability to lead. It gets personal.
Identity can also motivate those who don't share a candidate's background. That's important, too. Several white people I know, who had been on the fence, declared their support for Obama after those thinly veiled racist comments about him hit the mainstream media. Those voters, who don't share Obama's racial identity, were nevertheless impelled by race-based attacks to move into his camp. Call this the solidarity vote: supporting a candidate, in part, because of that candidate's identity -- even if you don't share those traits yourself.
Many Democratic voters, torn between two candidates who are remarkably similar on many top-tier issues, no doubt came to support the candidate with whom they felt the most solidarity. In other words, they acted like the vast majority of the electorate: swayed by identity, but not completely persuaded.